July 26, 2020
Story of a survivor
The dawn of the movies always looks to us like a creative man’s world, driven by art, rather than business. But in fact, it was overwhelmingly driven by business, and a bare-knuckle business at that, two of the barest knuckles being those of Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount.
When his Manhattan studio went up in smoke, apparently because a barrel of solvent had been dropped carelessly by a delivery man, not everybody believed it was an accident. Zukor himself never thought twice about wrecking someone else’s theatre in order to buy it up cheap. The atmosphere in turn-of-the-century movieland (pre-Hollywood) was tense indeed, with the highly-prized cine-cameras having to be guarded round the clock, and supplies of filmstock instantly cut-off to anyone who upset the big-bully distribution mafia known as The Trust. From outside, the industry was seen as a swamp of immorality, and banks wouldn’t lend to film people.
Zukor is chiefly remembered for discovering ‘Little Mary’ Pickford (who became literally the most popular woman on earth), and for encouraging feature-length films, when the industry had assumed that ten minutes was beyond the public attention span. This harked back to the origins of moving pictures, with kinetoscopes (‘What the Butler Saw’) in penny arcades that you might prefer your daughter not to visit.
His career must have broken records for longevity (he was still working at 103), and his memories of this distant age are illuminating. The public did not immediately warm to the new film medium. Many found it irritating, and brief clips would be shown at the end of a music-hall performance in order to clear the house. He also reminds us that there was no fixed point for the beginning of the talkies. The Jazz Singer (October 1927) is used for convenience, though it was mainly a silent, and he himself had conducted one of the earlier experiments with actors speaking their lines from behind the screen!